A Conductor’s Lament (Part 5, Conclusion)
Regularly our blog gets approached with the wish to publish „guest articles“, very often with the intent of some kind of self-promotion. But the following text (published in 5 parts over the coming days because of its length) is different. Rarely have we been approached with a text as explosive this one.
It is a thorough and deeply informed criticism that is not written by a journalist or a musicologist but by an insider of the business: a conductor.
From his or her own words it is explained that he/she has a name in the business and a therefore wants to remain anonymous as some statements could be perceived as career-hindering. I hope that the publication in this blog will incite a fruitful discussion about the future of classical music. As all criticism it should not be perceived as destructive but as constructive. Whatever the reaction to the following series will be, I hope it will acknowledge that many points in this article are quite close for comfort and cannot be completely denied.
The following text is reproduced with the permission of the author and unabridged. It will be followed by an interview with the author.
Of all the highly discouraging psychological barriers a young conductor encounters in the profession, the feeling of facing an almighty unchangeable industry, marred by boldfaced lack of integrity, corruption and immorality, is probably the most depressing of all. Conforming to the rules of this degraded culture seems to be the only way to survive in this career. I will now go over some of the main features of this social structure, which make the life of a conscious conductor almost unbearable. Of course, it is not only conductors who find themselves forced to capitulate, but all musicians. Conductors, however, having relatively more power than other musicians, often find themselves in a position to be enforcers of this structure, rather than being merely on the receiving end of its strictures.
Of all the recent scandals, the James Levine affair is the most blatant example of how hypocrisy and immorality permeate classical music. (I will not address the discussion around the facts of this case, and will focus only on the reactions of some of the institutions Levine worked with, as well as the general reaction among musicians.) Rumors about Levine’s conduct were known to every musician working in the classical music industry for many years. I myself, after only few months of work at a small music institute, on a different continent and in every way quite remote from the Met, was already exposed to these rumors, as if by the way from a fellow worker. I have never met a musician who is generally informed about the business who was not aware of these rumors, so when the story blew up, most people were hardly surprised. Such abusive practices were just accepted as one of the many wrongs that are commonplace in this dirty music business. And it is this pervasive immorality and amorality that I wish to highlight here. A young musician who is initiated into this blithely indifferent musical society will usually accept such abuse of power as normal and inevitable.
Even more alarming, however, was the reaction of the powerful music institutions with which Levine worked for years – especially the Met and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In light of his conduct being common knowledge, the claim to ignorance of both institutions was the most shameless lying in recent memory. And the subsequent investigations supposedly carried out into the allegations revealed that our industry had achieved new depths of depravity. Of course, very few people expressed any concern that the most important opera house and orchestra in the United States presided over such despicable behavior and turned a blind eye to it. In the Levine case, as in others that followed shortly after, not one important musician criticized the Met or the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In fact, other conductors pounced on the opportunity to replace Levine (as well as Charles Dutoit and Daniele Gatti after their respective scandals) in no time. The only conclusion one can draw from these scandals is that everything goes in classical music.
The willingness to speak out against any immoral conduct of individuals or institutions, as it invariably puts one’s career at risk, is practically nonexistent. Every person working in the industry could testify that corruption and abuse takes place on a daily basis. And yet, musicians who uphold their moral integrity despite the costs are nearly extinct.
Hardly surprising is that in this corrupt structure, music agencies (whose existence is commonly regarded as a necessary evil) have attained unprecedented power. As the working conditions of conductors changed immensely in the last sixty years, a growing need for the management of their appointments and related dealings has arisen – hence the proliferation of agencies. If in the past a conductor was usually associated with a single orchestra or opera house, the conducting career today is based primarily on guest-conducting. In the non-musical world this is known as the “gig economy”, and as it turns out our industry is not exempt from this development. This has both economic and artistic roots. In simple terms, one may characterize this mode of conducting work as less effort for more money. While a long-term conductor has to deal with every small organizational problem concerning his orchestra, a guest conductor is hardly concerned with anything apart from the short-term musical result. Thus, conductors tend to seek out as many guest-conducting opportunities as they can, resulting with the deterioration of musical standards we are all familiar with.
A conductor who spends half his time as a guest has no time to negotiate his own working conditions and appointment details. This is where agencies, a sort of career parasite, come into the picture. An agent is not an artist in any way and any illusion that agents possess an interest in the quality of a music performance cannot be seriously entertained. The sole interest of agencies is profit. It is therefore not surprising that agencies tend to support financial upgrades even at the cost of artistic and moral standards. Their methods of turning profit at the expense of art are so diverse that a whole book can be written about them. I will not elaborate on them here, but shall limit myself to the role of agencies in the downfall of the conducting profession.
One of the most damaging phenomena in our profession is that of the travelling conductor, who skips from orchestra to orchestra, with almost no interest in building real relationships with any one of them. For an agency to earn more, a conductor must work as often as possible. This drives agencies to pull all the strings they can to enable the conductor to maximize appointments. The proliferation of traveling conductors today is directly related to the low level of preparation and musical depth. Many young conductors, upon entering big agencies, are immediately sent out to as many orchestras as possible to “gain experience.” Of course, for the agency this means more profit. The result of this trial by fire is that many young conductors experience burnout very quickly. Agents, who are almost invariably musically ignorant, care very little about the actual musical development of young conductors. Their only goal is to have as many conductors working for them at any given moment, no matter how, where, and when. That more experienced conductors today are willingly to cooperate with this conduct of agencies is even more disgraceful to them than it is to the agencies. Traveling conductors, almost without exception, do not become great conductors.
Since most of the relations between music institutes and agencies takes place behind the scenes, it is only natural that it is rife with corruption and criminal behavior. Like many other immoral environments in the music world, everybody seems to turn a blind eye to these occurrences. It is a well-known fact among musicians that some prominent agencies even engage in criminal financial dealings with institutes and clients. In fact, many ambitious artists will do all in their power to get into the roster of these corrupt agencies, as they can often guarantee more work. Being a dirty agency today is more or less equated to being a good and efficient one.
A known problem in the music world today is the monopoly of the agencies representing the “big artists.” Agencies like Askonas Holt, IMG, Harrison Parrot, Intermusica and Opus3 use different methods of domination. The most notorious one is the “artists package”, according to which an orchestra gets to work with a star conductor while forced to engage lesser-known artists whom the same agency is in the process of promoting. As the agencies’ rosters become larger and their resources expand, music institutes are forced to deal with this cartel of a handful of agencies – a de facto monopoly managing the entire music industry. The highest goal of young conductors today is being signed by one of these big agencies. Being signed virtually guarantees career success, regardless of the talent and skill of the clients.
It has been a while since the industry has resigned to the idea that total commercialization is the only way classical music can survive in our era. The consequences this process has on the artists’ relations with their audiences are increasingly felt today in the reactions (or lack thereof) elicited in the concert hall, and in the place of classical music in society. That this commercialization is deemed a necessity is doubted by almost no one. Instead, every new idea that arises is judged by its commercial potential. Ironically enough, those few musicians who make a point of criticizing the classical music industry do it usually in a commercialized manner (The ridiculous example of Teodor Currentzis is a perfect one.)
At its core, this commercialization is based on the false idea that classical music cannot afford to be seen as “elitist” (a superficial way to regard high artistic standards and serious engagement). The guiding principle for every institute and PR agency, is that in light of the changes in modern society, classical music can only survive if it sheds the elitism associated with it and adopts popular marketing methods. The unending infantile revelations this ideology has bestowed upon us are a continual insult to music lovers and honest musicians. The low level of programing (based on the assumption that the public cannot stomach “serious” music); the vulgar advertising gimmicks, with musicians posing like football players and models; advertisements for orchestras in popular venues showcasing the conductor (with the composer in small print, as nobody cares what music is being played); and, of course, the promotional bombardment on social media. These are but some of the shameless methods this industry resorts to in its desperate attempts to market itself without wasting precious resources on the actual art it claims to represent.
This disastrous practice not only cheapened classical music but destroyed its place in society as a benchmark of serious engagement with art and culture. Contrary to the impression the classical music institution today tries to create, the intrinsic qualities of the music being bastardized is indeed superior to many other culture phenomena today. Promoting a Bruckner symphony performance by the same means used today for sports, pop culture, and fashion, is not only shameful towards the music, but degrading to the performing musicians. The most lethal outcome of this strategy is the absolute distortion classical music has gone through in the eyes of the public.
These ongoing developments have led to classical music losing its valuable position in public life. Instead of cherishing the music masterpieces that have been pillars of Western culture since their creation, their significance is now distorted and reduced to mere diversion and spectacle. If the conductor is promoted like a fashion model while the composer is downgraded to fine print, the concert experience has already been cast as a trivial exhibition even before the performance began. This example, like many others, demonstrates that the musicians themselves, not to mention those working behind the scenes (agents, management, PR) have all but lost the understanding of how important music really is. If the music is not taken seriously, it cannot be understood, and its real essence and power is then lost on us. Witnessing the state of classical music and its commercialization today, one cannot avoid the sad conclusion that the face of this hyper-commercialized industry is also the face of the musicians themselves.
This problem has long term implications and not only for the public. It is not only that the concertgoers are given false expectations that in no way do justice to the music being used, the musicians on stage feed off this state of mind – as they can sense it, whether consciously or not. Musicians do not live in a vacuum. Just like the public, they see how their orchestra is being promoted, they notice the quality of the programming, and most importantly, they communicate directly with the public in concert. A sensitive musician can feel how his art is being felt by the public. The debasing of classical music through commercialization is now exercising its power on the musicians themselves.
It is one of the most depressing facts today that many conductors are at the forefront of this degeneration and are willing accomplices to it. Instead of protecting the music, they, the most powerful musicians, are the first to sell their artistic integrity. Conductors today are chosen and promoted mainly for their marketing talents and their image. The ridiculous and fleeting fashion trends upon which careers are built attest to the profession losing its artistic value, leaving music by the wayside.